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Open Channel Donald
The man from U.N.C.L.E. died this past week, and what could be a better symbol for the new, dark era of Donald Trump? The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) was primarily a tongue-in-cheek TV action series about two intrepid spies working for a mysterious organization known as U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law Enforcement) who, every week, sought to save the world from diabolical masterminds. Yes, it was about 1960s spy stuff in an age of spy stuff (The Avengers, Danger Man, I Spy) but above all it was about style and sophistication. Superspy Napoleon Solo (played to perfection by Robert Vaughn) looked smashing in a vested tuxedo, and – like his big screen cousin James Bond – was always cool in a crisis, ready with a quip if not a gun when faced with a grim situation.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a top-rated program – actually, a brief phenomenon in the 1965-66 TV season – that reflected the style and sophistication of the John F. Kennedy years. When U.N.C.L.E. began Kennedy had only been assassinated a few months before and the wounds to the American psyche were still fresh. And the mythic status of JFK was already taking hold. Kennedy was seen as a class act (and today, Trump only pales in comparison).
“With an effortless look that betrayed a privileged New England upbringing and a Harvard education,” writer George Hahn observed once, “Kennedy’s iconic Ivy League style came to represent a distinctly American sophistication and masculine glamour that was rooted in Brooks Brothers and has continued to influence the likes of Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Thom Browne and others. His style, both dress and casual, has influenced all of us, really, whether we’re aware of it or not.”
Along with style, Kennedy brought a subtle, dry wit to the White House, which Trump, with his crude jokes (remember the Al Smith dinner fiasco?) could never dream of matching. After JFK appointed his brother to be attorney general, for instance, there were charges of nepotism, to which the president responded: “I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as attorney general before he goes out to practice law.”And when queried at a press conferences about how he became a war hero, he said: “It was absolutely involuntary; they sunk my boat.”
Vaughn, who died last week at age 83, perfectly captured these qualities as he played Solo (a name donated to the series by 007 author Ian Fleming), a gentleman of panache and breeding. Although he was a lady’s man, Solo would be appalled at the crassness of Trump, at his unrelenting boorishness. He was adept at using a gun, but Solo would never brag about it, never asserting, “I’m the best.” Knowing he was good was enough. And although he ran into many wicked women (in To Trap a Spy, the big-screen version of the pilot episode, he is double-crossed by luscious Luciana Paluzzi, who would later betray Sean Connery in Thunderball), he is always courteous to them, never once labeling them “nasty women.” (And if he ever found a sexual predator like Trump at work, well...it would be short work.)
Finally, Solo believed in working together to resolve problems, rather than brooding and blaming others for difficulties he might encounter. In every episode, the secret agent would persuade an “ordinary person” to assist him. And what about U.N.C.L.E. itself? It was clearly an organization ahead of its time in that it transcended cold war norms by pairing Solo, an American, with Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), a Russian. No walls here, only bridges.
The series was an absurd fantasy, of course, starting with its top secret headquarters, which the agents would enter through a dressing room in a Manhattan tailor’s shop in the East 40s. And they communicated with each other by saying, “Open Channel D” into their pens, for God’s sake! But it was a self-aware fantasy by actors, writers, and directors who knew they were making a fantasy, and who never confused reality with their own narcissism, or traded real-life concerns for cheap, selfish dreams of grandeur. They knew that the world is a dangerous place and that the only way a tongue-in-cheek fantasy wouldn’t become a real-life nightmare was to know when to draw the line. At some point, you have to turn the TV off and get on with the concerns of living, of looking out for your family, your friends, and your neighbors.
In U.N.C.L.E.’s world, Donald Trump would be the villain – clearly, the man has no class – and Solo would dispatch him by ironically turning his own plan against him (condemned, perhaps, to work for years building a great wall along with Mexican murderers and rapists). But in our jaded reality, Vaughn, the real man from U.N.C.L.E., is dead and Donald Trump will be the next president.
It’s scary. But we don’t have to give up. The “man” may be gone, but hope lives on. At one point in "The Alexander the Greater Affair," Solo, Kuryakin, and a beautiful woman are trapped and facing certain death. She cries out: “What are we going to do?” Solo’s reply? “The best that we can.” That’s all anyone can do. And pray it will be enough.
November 16, 2016